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Sectarian Pluralism in Saudi Arabia: Perspectives and Challenges
ăÍŃŃ ÇáăćŢÚ - 1/12/2004 - 10:27 pm

By Jafar Mohammad Alshayeb
• Features of this Contemporary Dilemma
• The Shiite View over this Issue
• The Development of the Salafist Stand
• The Official Initiatives

For a long time in the past, Arabian Peninsula embraced many schools of thoughts and Islamic sects in most of its regions, and that is mainly because it contains the Islamic cities and places which are glorified by all Muslims.

 Regardless of certain phases of time that were considered exceptional, AlHijaz and AlAhssa regions were specifically symbols for social coexistence and sectarian pluralism although there were many intellectual and sectarian trends in both of them.

 However, Sharia schools and religious sessions played a major role in constituting approaches for comparative religious studies and in creating a state of harmony and tolerance among the followers of these diverse sects because holding high religious positions like judiciary usually depend on the individual’s competency as well as his social acceptance before referring to favoritism and sectarian classification.

 In spite of that there were seven Islamic sects in Saudi Arabia; the four Sunni sects besides the Twelver, Zaidi and Ismaili Shiite, which had been recognized when the modern Saudi state was established, but the few last decades were characterized with sectarian intolerance and religious extremism. This situation controlled the Saudi community and resulted in an intellectual approach ferociously fights other existing approaches and sects in the society.

 It was possible for the Kingdom to remain an ideal example within the Islamic World in revealing Islamic tolerance and sectarian pluralism through the natural existence of these diverse sects and offering them the legitimate freedom to practice their rituals, but the increasing sectarian extremism totally reversed the situation. Even more worse, the spread of sectarian extremism in other Islamic communities became attached to what is already exists in Saudi Arabia; whether directly or indirectly. The spread of extreme beliefs that brand others as infidels subjected those communities to sectarian and intellectual conflicts whereas before they were totally away from them.

 It seems to be that there are signs for reviewing this issue from its various aspects; especially by a group of intellectuals from different schools of thought and by the official authorities in order to find suitable methods that deal with the damages which were created by this intellectual issue, locally and globally.

Features of this Contemporary Dilemma
 The beginning of this current tension between the Islamic sects followers in Saudi Arabia can be dated to the phase when the modern Saudi state was established and had been reorganized in the sixties. Since that time, the Salafism sect spread widely and, consequently, the intellectual effectiveness of other trends had been reduced from the national scene.

 This situation resulted in a state of being confined and withdrawn among the followers of those sects due to the absence of the opportunities which could contribute in correcting the prevalent stereotype about them.

 The religiously strict sects invested all the available potentials in reinforcing their positions and worked for complicating their relation with other approaches and restraining their freedom. Many of national projects were exploited to accomplish these targets, even those which aim for national integration like educational curricula, various informative programs, Islamic institutions and charitable centers, etc.

 Therefore, this situation led into the prevalence of some social behaviors and practices which are characterized with intolerance and discrimination towards everyone disagrees with this strict approach and there is not any legal protection.

 The continued incitement of diminishing the followers of other sects and working hard for alienating them resulted in creating the sense of being more powerful than others within the religiously strict groups and led to negatively employing the orientations of one nation’s individuals against each other.

 Moreover, the sectarian affiliation became the main measure for real patriotism and loyalty for the political system instead of the common considerations in the relationship between the society and the system.

 It is obvious that the spread of violence in the Saudi community by referring to the consecutive events is attributed to this condition of religious extremism and to the prevalence of alienating the others approach.

The Shiite View over this Issue
 Saudi citizens went through the implications of this alienation approach more than other societies due to the clear sectarian disparity and the absence of legal legislations that organize the relationship between different parties of that community. Shiites’ intellectuals realized the damages of these developments against this particular group of the same society in an early time. They believe that the way for reducing the sectarian extremism and tension in the Kingdom is by adopting principles for coexistence based on citizenship and reinforcing the mutual respect. On the other hand, this requires an intellectual approach and educational project deal with this problem comprehensively, which consider it within a national project that avoids disputes and various historical claims.

 Perhaps, the first signs of this project were represented with the lectures that were delivered by Sheikh Hasan AlSaffar in Muharram of 1408AH/1988 and 1409AH/1989 and which were collected into a book titled “Pluralism and Freedom in Islam” published by AlBayan AlArabi in 1410AH/1990. In this book, the author discussed the issues of religious diversity and freedom as well as sectarian pluralism, and called for confronting intolerance, sectarianism and terrorism of thought.

 Sheikh AlSaffar continued on the same clear and bold style in his writings and lectures over this issue since that time until today. He even created a real rapprochement between the theoretical perception and the practical program for diverse Islamic sects followers, on the Kingdom’s level at least.

 This tendency among the Saudi Shiites’ intellectuals was undoubtedly attributed to their openness over the religious and scientific atmospheres in both Iraq and Lebanon in the late eighties, and had been inspired by the experiences of open and moderate figures, over there.

 Both Zaki AlMilad and Mohammad Mahfoudh published AlKalimah Magazine in the Fall of 1413AH/1993, in which they addressed dialogue issues, human rights, social peace and developing civil society. They, also, issued a book over Islamic dialogue in which many writers and intellectuals participated. Moreover, Zaki AlMilad wrote a book titled “Unity, Pluralism and Dialogue in the Contemporary Islamic Discourse” in 1414AH/1994, whereas Mohammad Mahfoudh published a valuable book titled “The Citizens and the State: a Statement for Social Peace” in 1418AH/1998.

 Furthermore, in 1416AH/1996, Sheikh Abdullah AlYousif wrote a book under the title “Legality of Diversity; a Systematic Study of the Other Opinion” and Sheikh Mohammad AlElaywat wrote another one titled “Over Social Rehabilitation” in 1414AH/1994.

 All these intellectual efforts besides mass speeches over various religious events contributed in creating a suitable basis for openness and coexistence although the majority of the Shiite community is just waiting for the results of those initiatives.

 It is worth to mention that Rasid Network, a well-known Shiite website, had conducted a survey which indicates 75% of its readers believe that there are not any signs for the openness between Salafists and Shiites in Saudi Arabia, currently.

The Development of the Salafist Stand
 Lately, the Salafist trend started to deal with this dilemma in clarity and boldness through calling for openness and rejecting branding others as infidels which severely harmed the Salafist approach itself.

 Although there were many bold initiatives that were led by the Saudi intellectuals; especially of the Salafist trend, unfortunately, they were incapable of making any progress that seriously handles this issue. Perhaps, this is the outcome of that the mainstream Salafist trend does not sense that there is a pressing need for it.

 A group of enlightened intellectuals participate in addressing the problems that are attached to this issue; some of them are Dr. Mohammad Ali AlHarfi, Ibrahim AlBlaihi, Mohammad Ali AlMahmoud, Abdullah Bajad AlOtaibi, Hasan Farhan AlMaliki, Mansour AlNiqidan, Mushari AlDiedi, Saud AlSarhan, Dr. AbdulAziz Qasim and others.

 Moreover, the stands of some Salafi sheikhs contributed in denouncing the sectarian violent acts in Iraq and Pakistan. Sheikh Mohammad AlDahaim wrote the first statements which were considered moderate about Shi’i citizens. Those statements resemble the speeches of Awadh AlQarni and contributed with creating positive attitudes on the national scene.

 Those intellectuals tend to express their critical readings over the extremely restricted thinking march besides its evolution and defects. Furthermore, they assessed the activities, events and statements of Salafism figures to clarify their impacts over the society and the national unity.

 Although it is early to state the outcomes of these initiatives on the local scene, but they were unable of launching a civic, practical and national project until now that contributes in the rapprochement between the citizens of different sects followers.

 It is noted that the stands of the religious symbols over this issue are indecisive. Those symbols highly consider the reaction of their followers and look for suitable justifications for them.

 In contrast to these positive signs which characterize the Islamic dialogue in Saudi Arabia, there are still some extremely restricted approaches which devastate those developing attempts through doctrinal controversies and sectarian disagreements without regarding the social and the national interests.

The Official Initiatives
 The intellectual meetings for National Dialogue Initiative played a major role in addressing this issue within a practical program aims for recognizing sectarian pluralism in one nation and the right of coexistence for all.

  These meetings which were held within five conferences for national dialogue contributed in eliminating the psychological barriers between the figures of the two parties; the Salafists and the Shiites, and introduced some of their thoughts and orientations, directly. Moreover, the repeated statements of the Kingdom’s senior officials restrained the fataws of branding others as infidels and sinners which was prevalent among the severely restricted groups. Those acts, also, played a significant role in preventing the individuals of the society from turning to executive tools for setting themselves against the other party.

 The visit of the Kingdom’s political leaderships to console the family of the late Mohammad Alawi AlMaliki, who was known for many provisions and fatwas that issued against him, is greatly appreciated by many observers because it has political indications imply the recognition of this Islamic figure although he follows another Islamic sect.

 Although these initiatives and their effective role in reducing the sectarian tension are greatly important, but they still need more activation and more limitation to comprehend the recognition theoretically and practically. This is to show that sectarian affiliation does not prevent achieving the national unity goal and the equality approach for all citizens despite their various sectarian and intellectual orientations.

 After this long phase of constant sectarian conflicts, all parties realized that this situation is against their interests and the only beneficiaries are the enemies of the nation therefore this issue must be dealt with transparency, frankness and firm will in order to designate the elements and the reasons of this issue, and to set a comprehensive action plan for handling it.


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